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Seriously Italian: Lavender Honey Spice Cake

[Photograph: Diana Baur]

Hold the phone, you may be thinking to yourself. Isn't lavender a French Provençal thing? Pazienza, I say—let me explain. Lavender, or lavanda in italiano, is one of the many gifts of nature France shares with its neighboring Italian regions of Piedmont and Liguria.

I first learned about Piedmont's lavender from my dear friend Diana Baur. She and her husband Michael own the Baur B&B in Acqui Terme, a beautiful small town in southwest portion of the region. On a foggy November day a few years back, Diana and I walked the path down her steep hillside as she told me about her plans to plant a carpet of lavender along the slope. I imagined how postcard-pretty it would be, bowing in the breeze and sunlight of spring and early summer. A unique and imaginative touch for an Italian property, I thought to myself, until Diana explained that lavender is a very common crop in this corner of Italy.

The Maritime Alps form a natural border separating France and Italy, bestowing the same climate upon the nearby provinces of both countries. Lavender initially grew wild at the lower altitudes, but was eventually cultivated throughout these areas for the same reasons—to create devastatingly beautiful landscapes that also provide ground cover, prevent soil erosion, and support the local economy. Italian lavender is harvested for use in perfumes, cosmetics, spa, and home products, and both fresh and dried lavender flowers find their way into the Piemontese kitchen.

The lavender honey produced by small, local apiaries is a prized regional ingredient. Thick, creamy, and visibly crystallized, it lends a heady flavor and aroma to cakes, cookies, and jams, drizzled on roasted rabbit, wild fowl and creamy farmhouse cheeses. Diana serves it to her guests for breakfast, dribbled over fresh, local apricots and berries.

These traditions inspired me to create my Lavender Honey Spice Cake, a perfect treat to enjoy in the autumn, filling the kitchen with the aroma of honey and spices as it bakes. A bit of farina integrale, or whole wheat flour, enhances the texture, making this a natural partner for a steaming cup of tea.

The special taste of this super-moist cake comes from the marriage of the spice blend—an even mix of cinnamon, ginger, and ground fennel seed—with the lavender honey. You can certainly make substitutions on both fronts, but you'll miss out on the unique flavor combination. Any French or Italian lavender honey will work just fine, although the strength of the lavender will vary from producer to producer. Look for it in specialty food shops or online vendors.

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[Photograph: Gina DePalma]

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